Appeared in the Comment section of TOI-Crest earlier this week
Hell hath no fury
May 19, 2012
Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalithaa – two tempestuous and enigmatic women chief ministers currently dominating Indian politics – share two significant markers: gender and power. Feeding into and strengthening each other, both these elements have contributed to constructing their cult personalities in bewildering and striking ways. A year ago, the two leaders swept to power in their respective states of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, defeating powerful political adversaries. Mamata even achieved what had at the time appeared to be an unattainable feat: she defeated the potent 34-year-old Left Front government with a sweeping majority.
While the Trinamool Congress leader finally made the transition from being a volatile, feisty street-fighter to Kolkata’s Writer’s Building, the scenario for her Tamil Nadu counterpart was somewhat different. The AIADMK supremo was anointed chief minister for the third time in her long and fractious political career. But unlike Mamata, Jayalalithaa was no stranger to state power and the advantages of leveraging its controls.
With both the leaders now marking the first anniversaries of their recent ascendancy to power, it is a good time to take another look at their personality cults. At the heart of the debate around Mamata and Jayalalithaa are several important and unresolved questions hinging on gender, and the complex power relations inhabiting the domain of politics. Are women politicians expected to be less competitive and aggressive, and more nurturing and compassionate than men? Or is it just a question of power corrupting those who wield it? To properly understand leaders like the women in question here, we need to locate them in a framework moving beyond gender, and then decode the inherent logic of power and how women negotiate it: especially when they alone are in supreme control of their parties and governments.
The narratives of Mamata’s and Jayalalithaa’s political lives are far from similar. Despite the varying trajectories however, both have shared comparable experiences, stemming from the overwhelmingly male political worlds they have inhabited. Both have encountered a fair bit of humiliation – political, as well as personal and physical. But that’s also where their differences begin. Tamil Nadu’s actress-turned politician shared an intense relationship with another icon, M G Ramachandran. Besides being the better half of a popular onscreen pairing, Jayalalithaa was later MGR’s political protêgê. The unconventional alliance brought her heaps of abuse and slander from political detractors, patently shaping in that process her dictatorial style of transacting politics as a way of reinforcing her position of authority – when she finally got it.
Mamata, however, has maintained a scrupulously chaste image: a woman politician who, seemingly, hasn’t ever been involved in a romantic relationship;and even more significantly, hasn’t had a male patron hovering in the background to promote her political career. But this hasn’t spared her the cut of male chauvinism. For most of her political life, Mamata has had to put up with intemperate, sexist comments and ridicule from her opponents.
Instances of patriarchal politics impinging on both women are fairly numerous. Like the shocking outrage witnessed on the floor of the Tamil Nadu assembly on March 25, 1989: when M Karunanidhi, then chief minister, rose to present the budget, and opposition leader Jayalalithaa, raised a privilege issue. What subsequently unraveled on the assembly floor was testimony to the state’s crude and sexist political culture. It is recounted by many that DMK MLAs attacked Jayalalithaa with paperweights. One pulled her sari, another her hair. But such behaviour is not unique to Tamil Nadu. One could argue that all strong, independent political women have to face the brunt of it in one form or another in India. Before coming to power, Mamata too, encountered CPM sponsored violent physical assaults. Most prominent among them was the vicious attack at Kolkata’s Hazra junction in July 1990, which left the Trinamool leader hanging on to her life by a thread.
Getting the better of a political system run mostly by men groomed in the school of patriarchy is perhaps the strongest testimony to the fortitude of both these women. In the process of coming to power in such a polity, however, both women appear to have internalised some of the worst attributes of a masculine political culture. These women have clearly found it difficult to inhabit a male political world. Their constant struggle has even, evidently, contributed to their penchant for political vendetta and megalomania. Mamata and Jayalalithaa have fiercely attacked their opponents and cultivated strong personality cults conveying that they are the final word on matters political. Mamata’s outrage over a cartoon and her imprisonment of opponents, and Jayalalithaa’s infamous midnight raid on DMK leaders are examples of their intolerance.
Yet, gender is not the only prism through which we can explain such tendencies. Women are not intrinsically more compassionate because they are women. Power, especially when unchallenged, evokes similar responses from women and men alike. It nurtures megalomania, greed, authoritarianism, and corruption. Mamata and Jayalalithaa are two exemplary products of such a complex system. Gender adds to their insecurities; it is not a cause of it.